The ability to blow top-shelf glass—the rare examples that make even experienced blowers stop and take notice—isn’t extremely common. The capability to make a living at it is even more rare. But that’s exactly what one entrepreneurial 29-year-old from Indiana, under the moniker of the Midwest Funk Connection, has accomplished.
Brent Thackery has been blowing glass for only eight years, a relatively short period of time to master an art as delicate and sophisticated as his. During that time, his art has been purchased by several A List fans of the culture, including actor Woody Harrelson, funkmaster George Clinton, and others from the music industry.
Thackery’s adoption of his craft reads like a bohemian-style great American success story. “I borrowed two hundred bucks from my cousin and went to a welding supply store and bought a blow torch,” he told me during an interview from his studio. “A local company makes bottles for pharmaceutical companies. I dressed like a ninja and jacked a bunch of stuff from their dumpster and began working with it,” he said, laughing.
“It was a slow start at first,” he explained. “I took a scientific class and made test tubes and water jackets and all that stuff. The rest of it was sitting in my garage, screwing up pieces,” he told me. “I was making my living as a tattoo artist at the time. Whenever I was waiting for clients, I’d mess with the glass. I have kids, so there was also the pressure to make money,” he said. At first, Thackery’s family mocked him, not believing that he could make a living blowing glass. “But here we are, eight years later, tearin’ it up,” he said.
“He’s pretty amazing,” said Willy Crosby, a blower with the Galactic Empire studio in Columbus, Ohio, who specializes in decorative pieces for tobacco connoisseurs. Crosby said he believes that it’s Thackery’s attention to detail that helps set him apart. “Brent puts just as much time into the decorations and extremities of his pieces as the main piece,” said Crosby.
“At one point, I think half of my staff had commissioned custom pieces from him, and these are kids who—like me—see thousands and thousands of different pieces per year,” said Steven Arthur, owner of the Magic Bus, a popular headshop in Indianapolis. “His stuff is dynamite, that’s for sure.”
The secret of Thackery’s success lies in his unique combination of talents. His technical precision and honeycomb treatments are among the best in the business. But accuracy alone produces nothing more than a machine-tooled glass bong. Thackery’s mesmerizing pieces are hybrids of his technical prowess and an inherent sense for the organic. His work reflects an intimate and almost primordial sense for “lopsided balance.” Sometimes resembling alien toadstools, other times portraying trippy sea creatures or elaborate and fantastical structures, Thackery’s art is exactly that: Art.
His creations are almost hauntingly sophisticated and deep. Many of Thackery’s pieces seem to magically provide a glimpse into the wide infinity of space. One of his trademarks is decorating pieces with one or more swirling or flower-like worm holes, twisting time and space into a few square inches of Pyrex.
While possessing a keen sense of the need to market and sell his work in order to survive in the modern world, Thackery considers his pieces more than a mere product. Comfortingly, his spirituality toward his work is exceeded only by his humility. When describing how his glass first began attracting attention, Thackery said, “People just began gravitating toward it.” It may be that much of his success is due to his focus on his trade and the pieces he produces, not himself or his ego. “Glass blowing itself is more than sitting down and making a pipe. The glass is actually the teacher,” he said.
Organically Inspired Beauty
When one peers into the seemingly impossibly deep spaces on some of Thackery’s highly organic pieces, a natural response is to wonder how someone could develop the skill to create such beautiful art. When queried, he responded, “I just sat in front of the torch and put in the time. I was passionate about it. Obsessed with it, you know? That’s really the key, I think. If you’re obsessed with anything, you’re going to get good at it,” he philosophized.
The quality of a showcase piece created by Thackery doesn’t come cheap: His bubblers sell for between $350 and $3,000. For those on a more meager budget, he produces less elaborate—yet equally gorgeous—pipes, vases, oil lamps, and necklace beads. “I’ve probably had more than 20 of his bubblers through my store in the past year, and I don’t think I’ve had two that were the same,” said the Magic Bus’ Arthur. “Brent’s probably the only artist that I can say that about,” he said. “And I see tens of thousands of pipes per year.”
Thackery pointed out that some high-end glass techniques are the simple result of a blower’s ability to take the heat. “The hotter that you work with the glass, the more fluid it becomes. You have to be able to think faster and more fluidly in order to move your hands to accommodate the quickness of the flow. Just being able to move with the glass at the rate it wants to fall makes you a better blower,” he said.
This Indiana artist’s passion translates into a spiritual respect for his craft. “The individual pieces are a point in time,” he told me. “Sometimes, when you’re blowing glass, it’s like a Zen state, and you forget that you’re even blowing glass. You’re kind of on a little day trip and you come back and the piece is done,” he said with his charismatic laugh.
One could easily regard this artist’s pieces as pure art, not wanting to coat them with resin while consuming his or her favorite herb. Thackery, however, is quick to correct any such misunderstandings. “Actually, it’s sacrilegious to not smoke with them,” he said. When asked his goals, the young blower’s hippy spirituality shined through. “I don’t really have any goals,” he said. “What happens happens, you know?” After a reflective pause, however, he admitted, “I’d like to make a pipe that the whole world could hit at the same time.”
Big Country Weighs In
Big Country, from Big Country Glass in West Virginia, has been blowing his own pieces and reselling heady glass from other artists since 1991. “Out of all the glass blowers I know, Brent definitely has his own thing going,” Big Country told me during an interview at Nelson Ledges Quarry Park in Ohio.
- On Implosions: “He does a lot of implosions using gold and silver fuming and he’s pretty much mastered how to work the two. Using a mixture of gold and silver, you can alter the heat of the flame and get just about any color in the rainbow. If you’ve seen some of Brent’s implosions, he definitely has that on the lock.”
- On Shaping: “His shaping is his own thing, for sure. They’re not standard shapes. He doesn’t blow a traditional bubbler; he doesn’t blow a traditional hammer. He blows these big goopy massive evil-lookin’ things.”
- On Style: “I’ve seen his shit for quite a few years now. I would never walk into a shop and not be able to pick out his stuff. If you see 50 pieces, his will jump out to you immediately.”
Interview Session One
Gooey Rabinski: During the past eight years, how have your glass blowing skills evolved?
Brent Thackery: It was a slow start. At that time, it seemed few people were doing it. You didn’t really hear about anybody doing it. So there was no way to really learn or find a mentor. So I took a scientific glass blowing class. That kind of laid the foundation. The rest of it was just sittin’ in my garage, screwing up pieces [laughs].
GR: What were your first income sources from glass blowing?
BT: I hooked up with some people who began selling some of my stuff. And I did a lot of production work. It required persistence and helped me get my technique down.
GR: Tell me more about the production work.
BT: It really helped a lot in that I’d have an idea and have to follow it through. I learned to not allow the glass to control me. I had to control the glass to create product that we had to have.
GR: Your work is among the best I’ve seen. Surely you didn’t develop this skill set with a single scientific class and some production work….
BT: It was really just giving up my life and sitting in the garage for ten or fifteen hours a day for two or three years and not having a life at all. Just sitting in front of the torch and puttin’ in the time and being really passionate about it. That’s really the key, I think.
GR: What are your outlets for selling?
BT: Basically, it’s young people, they’re pretty much the mainstay. I do have a guy who sells stuff for me. He’s a businessman and he’s a major player in the industry. He had never seen a pipe that was worth more than a couple hundred dollars and I sent him a sample…one of the first bigger pieces I had done. He took it to a show in Las Vegas. He called me from the show and ordered like 30 of them. I was blown away. It might take a week or so to make one, and he wanted 30 overnighted to him! [laughs]
GR: What’s the average price range of the pieces you’re crafting?
BT: For the elaborate pieces, anywhere from $800 and up. If somebody came to me with $100,000, I could create a piece worth that much. That’s really my philosophy, to go over the top. Whatever I can do to expand the art of everything. I’ll admit, I want people to be amazed when they look at something.
GR: Do you like to focus on the bigger pieces?
BT: Absolutely. Not just ‘bigger,’ but technical things. Like when people say, ‘You can’t do that. The glass isn’t capable of doing that.’ And then I’ll make a mistake and it will contradict everything that I thought was possible. That avenue takes me to new places.
GR: So, on the creative side, you have to get an idea that you can see in your mind but somehow, on the physics side of it, you have to make the glass and the flame realize your vision?
BT: Yea. It’s a matter of opening myself to the channels of energy that are just kind of flowing through me. I’m using myself as a medium and these other energies are creating the glass for me. That’s kind of the way I like to look at it.
Interview Session Two
GR: Is it sacrilege to place a world-class heady piece on the shelf and never puff on it?
BT: [Laughing] Absolutely…absolutely.
GR: What type of pieces have you been working on? Have you been focusing on any particular style?
BT: I’ve been doing a lot of big stuff. A lot of fuming stuff, just trying to keep it real simple. I’m really trying to do new stuff and get away from what everybody else is doing and what’s expected, you know?
GR: Sounds like you’re developing some of your own techniques.
BT: Yea, trying to do a lot of experimental stuff. Just trying to come at it from different angles and different perspectives. Instead of just knocking out a straightforward production piece that everybody’s looking for, trying to do something totally weird, just to make it a novelty.
GR: So you’re creating those pieces where gawkers say, “You can really smoke out of that?” [Laughing]
BT: [Laughing] Yea, that’s what I’m trying to get. That mindset that you can have a piece sitting there and it’s not necessarily something that you need to hide. It’s sitting around and you think, “Wow, I just want to look at this for a while before I use it.”
GR: Would you say glass blowing—as a profession and way of earning one’s living—is a form of freedom from the establishment?
BT: Absolutely. Freedom from whatever is oppressing people. [This proves] that there’s an avenue to live the life you want to live. The life that you dream about. With my own work, I just want to get a message out of peace and harmony into the world.
GR: What’s your favorite piece to date?
BT: I made a piece for a big card player. It was just a gigantic black piece. I did a lot of gold fuming on it. That’s one of my favorites, for sure. I just pulled off a new piece a couple of weeks ago with some new colors. When I put them all together, it was just about every color in the neighborhood, but they all flowed seamlessly. ‘Cause there’s silver and gold in the colors, which changes the tint of things.
GR: Is glass blowing a natural extension of your creativity and spirituality?
BT: Absolutely. It’s become a part of who I am. If you’re searching for new things and your brain kicks up on glass, there’s no limit. I haven’t run into a wall yet. In some things in life, you’ll reach a plateau in your learning where you can’t go any further on your own, but this has held my interest. I was a tattoo artist for ten years and I couldn’t learn anymore. I was trying to learn from other people and I wasn’t getting anywhere. Then I began doing glass on the side and, ever since, I just can’t stop.
[This interview was conducted in 2007.]
Gooey Rabinski is a technical writer and instructional designer who has contributed dozens of feature articles to magazines such as High Times, SKUNK, Heads, Weed World, Cannabis Health Journal, Green Thumb, and Treating Yourself and media outlets such as Whaxy and Green Flower Media. He is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana, available on Amazon Kindle.